Months before the state announced on Dec. 18 its decision to deny a permit for a massive swine facility on a farm in Fillmore County, the Newburg Township Board of Supervisors knew its constituents and neighbors were set against it. The board passed a yearlong moratorium in September that would prevent any large feedlots from setting up shop while a committee mulled the long-term question: Should it set a permanent cap on the size of feedlots within its borders?
It’s a question counties and townships across Minnesota have explored. Some have opted to enact some kind of local ordinance to give them control over livestock operations that continue to grow larger as the total number of farms shrinks. Fillmore County caps feedlots at 2,000 animal units – an industry metric that takes into account the amount of manure each animal contributes. The nearly 5,000 sows that would live at the Catalpa, LLC, facility come in just under the threshold.
“We don’t have anything even close to that size in the neighborhood now,” Newburg Township Supervisor Mark Gjere said.
Al Hein, the Fillmore County farmer proposing the facility, disagreed with any characterization of the issue as contentious. He says opposition came from people who are new to the region and “are more unfamiliar with agriculture.” He has talked before about the proposal and his reason for proposing the facility.
Community members packed two public information meetings and filed nearly 800 comments to tell the state they oppose the proposal, describing concerns of how it would impact their environment, community, and quality of life. They asked the state to do more than deny the permit – which it did in December. They wanted the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to demand an environmental impact statement, believing the next-level review would show just how much damage such an operation could do in an area where porous geology makes groundwater especially susceptible to contamination.
The state refused to order such a review. That’s no surprise to advocates who have worked on this issue for a couple of decades and argue the state doesn’t enforce its laws overseeing these kinds of farms. But residents new to the fight said they felt abandoned. Like other Minnesota communities, Newburg would have to lean on its authority to set stricter rules if it wanted to ensure local opinion mattered.
“We thought the state was going to come through for us at the end,” Gjere said. “They kind of left us in a bad situation. They didn’t back us at all the way we were hoping they would.”
The value of local control
Twenty years ago, members of the Minnesota House of Representatives attempted to enact a moratorium on any feedlot over 750 animal units. Neither the Senate nor the governor were on board at the time, but a final bill included a provision that gave counties the power to pass their own laws that would limit feedlots more than the state does. At the same time, Minnesota townships enjoy local zoning control that can be more restrictive than any county-level rules in place.
That is a factor that sets Minnesota apart from neighboring states. David Hann, a former Republican leader in the Minnesota Senate who now heads the Minnesota Association of Townships, said local control is a tradition in Minnesota. “People should have the ability to regulate the conditions of their lives,” he said. “Minnesota has a history of recognizing that local government is a positive thing.”
Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), tracks the growth and spread of large livestock operations. He said the difference between states with strong local control laws and those without is best seen in the environmental impact.
In Iowa, for example, local control is weak, and the number of feedlots has exploded, Lilliston said. Researchers at the University of Iowa have linked high rates of water contamination to dense livestock operations.
“The degree to which the state allows people to oppose these operations at the county level is how much they can protect their air and water,” Lilliston said. “Because at the federal level, they’re not stepping up.”
In past years, the federal government has moved to deregulate these large livestock farms – also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). IATP joined other groups to file a lawsuit in December against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Farm Service Agency over a rule changed in 2016. The change exempts medium-sized CAFOs (that’s a federal designation) from undergoing an environmental review when they apply for a federal loan.
The lawsuit claims the agencies violated federal law by making the exemption without offering the public a chance to comment on it. It goes on to say that conducting a review before approving a loan “provided a government check” on the ways a CAFO affects the community and environment around it and gave residents a chance to weigh in before the operation received federal funding.
A separate lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over rule changes proposed in November. The changes would exempt CAFOs from reporting emissions that exceed a certain threshold, including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide – toxic fumes emitted by animal manure. The lawsuit claims that requiring CAFOs to report emissions enables people living nearby to protect themselves and investigate the operation.
Opposing interests in Minnesota
Progressive rural organizers think Minnesota lawmakers and agencies side with corporate interests over residents, pointing to attempts over the years to weaken citizen input and local government control, as well as examples of failed oversight.
A bill introduced early this session, as well as previous sessions, would alter an existing state law to allow greater protection to large feedlots against nuisance lawsuits. The current law says a farm can’t be deemed a public or private nuisance after operating for two years as long as it’s located in an appropriate zone, complies with all regulations, and follows standard ag practices. But the protection doesn’t apply to livestock operations over a certain size. For swine operations, the threshold is 1,000 animal units.
The bill’s author, Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, would remove that exemption so that any livestock operation of any size, if it is “doing a good job” by meeting the other standards, would enjoy the same protection as smaller farms. He said agriculture has changed. As livestock operations get bigger, they shouldn’t be open to lawsuits just because of their size, he said.
To Bobby King with Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit farm advocacy group, the bill would take away residents’ rights to use the courts when the effects of a farm’s practices extend beyond its borders. Such lawsuits have been used in North Carolina against hog producers.
“You don’t have a right to operate a business if it diminishes my enjoyment of my property,” King said.
King said MPCA has refused to call for any environmental impact statement over the years or monitor air pollution around farms after neighbors raise complaints. Two permit proposals concluded before the Dayton administration left in January, including Catalpa and a dairy expansion in Winona County, offer examples of the state holding back. Residents of both counties called for environmental impact statements, saying karst topography surrounding both sites, as well as evidence that groundwater is already contaminated, made an in-depth review necessary.
“This was as a good a case for one as there’s been,” King said. “We needed him (then-MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine) to use the power he had then as commissioner to take a closer look at this operation before it would move forward.”
In his announcement saying he would deny Catalpa’s permit, Stine indicated the cost of an environmental impact statement (which the operator requesting the permit pays for) factored into the decision.
“The Catalpa project is the first big new feedlot application we’ve had in Fillmore County since extensive data on nitrate contamination of drinking water wells has come out,” Stine said in a news release, referring to a Minnesota Department of Agriculture study that showed nitrate levels in private wells were too high in 19 of 24 townships in the county. So, the former commissioner reasoned, it would be unfair to make a single feedlot operator pay for the review.
He recommended the state sponsor a regional study. The decision to act on the recommendation lies with the Environmental Quality Board, Forrest Peterson, an MPCA spokesperson, said. Since Stine made the request – and left the agency – there hasn’t been a response.
King said Stine “punted” on the issue. “We have some pretty meaningful state laws that would make a difference if they were enforced. … We’re hoping for something different under a new administration.”
Al Hein, the Fillmore County farmer proposing the Catalpa facility, said ag groups, including the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, want the state to further streamline its process. “But we have to keep in mind the environment’s really important,” he said.
He thinks the agency “did everything they could under the law” during his permit process. Stine’s announcement of his intent to deny Hein’s permit gave him time to convert it from a general permit to an individual permit – one that sets a higher standard and provides an opportunity to continue on with the facility. That saves him the cost of starting the process over from the beginning.
He withdrew the application to see what the state water quality study finds. “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” he said.
Newburg on its own
By the time the Newburg Township Board of Supervisors passed a one-year moratorium on new feedlots with more than 500 animal units, the town had already attended a public meeting put on by the MPCA and submitted their public comments on the project. Gjere said the choice was difficult but based on the opposition to the 5,000-sow proposal, “we had to do something.”
A six-member committee, dominated by farmers, Gjere said, is studying the issue and working on a recommendation to the township about whether to institute a local ordinance that would set a stricter cap on the number of animals a feedlot can have. Preble Township, 10 miles north of Newburg, also set a moratorium.
The committee will take its time to come up with the right recommendation, Gjere said. Residents in the township and the county want to “be careful” while considering the right move because they’re trying to balance everyone’s concerns. People worry about water depletion and contamination from operating large feedlots. But they also worry about blocking all opportunities for farming families looking to stay in business. In today’s economy, that often means expansion.
An environmental impact statement would have helped local decision-makers strike that balance, he said. “We have a lot of things happening in a small area here that are different than other areas. A lot of areas have a lot flatter grounds. I wish they would have done something to have found out more of our area here.”